Now that the government is lifting one restriction after another, shopping streets are seeing a rise in foot traffic again. Are we witnessing the revival of retail? Economist Cor Molenaar isn’t convinced. ‘Local entrepreneurs who offer a service certainly have a future, but a lot needs to be done to breathe new life into physical retail.’

As soon as weather permitted, long queues formed outside popular retail chains on high streets in the Netherlands and terraces were full. ‘A blip,’ says Molenaar. ‘There was a vacancy problem in the Kalverstraat and shopping centres that had to be addressed. Not to mention the number of independent entrepreneurs who had to close. What we’re seeing happening in the high street, it’s just catching up.’

 

Hospitality industry

Briefly put, we’re like cows being let out into the fields for the first time in spring. We’re skipping and frolicking in the grass that’s been waiting for us all this time. But this enthusiasm will soon fade. What is more, according to Molenaar, we’re mainly going into the city for the restaurants and pubs, not for the shops. ‘Before, you had to go into town to buy certain things,’ he says, ‘now we primarily want to sit on a terrace. If we do buy something, it’s only by chance. Not because we were looking for it.’

 

Free time

He explains that it has to do with our changing way of life. Molenaar: ‘It’s not so much about offline versus online. We’re taking a different approach to what we do in our free time. We think it’s important. We want to be able to go out or pursue a hobby. But there’s also an enormous amount of pressure on that time. Because of family or work or similar obligations.’ According to Molenaar, at the end of the day, free time is becoming increasingly scarce and as a result, we as consumers are becoming increasingly critical about what we spend our free time doing. ‘So we are going to order more and more stuff online, like groceries and other necessities.’

 

Service

For entrepreneurs, it means they have to put in more effort. Molenaar describes many traditional shopkeepers as ‘counter leaners’, who hang out in their shop, waiting for someone to come in. ‘Those are the shops that end up closing down,’ he says. ‘Certainly in electronics, you don’t go to a shop anymore to buy something. All the information you need is online and the prices are lower. But there are still opportunities for entrepreneurs. Just look at the CoolBlue stores, which excellently complement their online offer by offering a service. On the website I’m led through an extensive offer and I’m given advice. If I then buy something, I know I can go to their stores for questions or explanations.’

 

Subscription

‘And it doesn’t even have to be as large-scale as CoolBlue. If I buy something at the computer shop in my village, I can buy a subscription. They then call me periodically perform maintenance on my computer: they take remote control of my computer, run a virus scan and, for instance, delete temporary files. Half an hour later I get a message that I can continue. They ensure that my computer continues to run smoothly and that I’m a satisfied customer. And the funny thing is that their prices are slightly higher than those of an online provider, but it doesn’t bother me because they know me and my situation. And that personal connection is worth a lot. In short, entrepreneurs must focus more on service and listen more closely to their customers.’

 

Data

And the knife cuts both ways, because these traders understand what their customers are looking for and buying. Data is the magic word, according to Molenaar: ‘Without data, there is no future. Data allows you to predict how many products you are going to sell and so how many you have to buy.’ Although it sounds obvious, he believes companies and traders miss out on a lot of opportunities. ‘It’s not surprising since that’s how these traders earn their living. So they prefer to stick to what they’ve been doing for years. It’s why I also believe that city councils and interest groups have an important role in collecting and providing knowledge through data, especially for smaller traders. Ensuring they understand buying behaviour in their area so they can then respond to that behaviour. Because a failing shopping district is less attractive for area residents. They’ll just leave at a faster rate.’

If current trends continue, Molenaar expects that orders and deliveries will only increase in the coming years. ‘Supermarkets will then become smaller and will focus more on non-food items, possibly with more shop-in-shop concepts. You can already see this happening with Jumbo and Hema. There’ll also be more shopping centres where sociability and service are central rather than the sale of products. And all the more so in the hospitality industry. Electronics shops will have to ask themselves: how important is that shop actually?’

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